Nothing personal, really Review: Fans hearing evidence of lead singer David Gahan's drug abuse in 'Ultra' songs should listen again.

April 15, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

With gossip being one of the entertainment industry's most popular byproducts, it's hard to separate what a singer does on record from what he or she does in real life. These days, most everyone assumes that singers write what they know -- literally.

So when Depeche Mode fans sit down with "Ultra" (Warner Bros. 46522, arriving in stores today), the band's first studio album in four years, many will wonder how much of the album has to do with singer David Gahan's drug problems. Gahan, remember, went into cardiac arrest last spring after overdosing on heroin and cocaine, a brush with death that nearly broke up the band.

Did that desperate self-destruction provide the subtext to "Barrel of a Gun"? Are there echoes of drug-fueled self-loathing in the lyrics to "Useless"? And what of "Sister of Night," the track Gahan completed just before his collapse -- is there hidden evidence there?

Probably not. Gahan, after all, doesn't write Depeche Mode's songs -- multi-instrumentalist Martin Gore does. Moreover, as much as the lyrics might have something to do with Gahan's demons, they're general enough that they might just as easily refer to something else.

Those inclined to find drug evidence in every song will have little trouble convincing themselves that "Useless," with lines like "Well it's about time/It's beginning to hurt," is clearly about heroin addiction. Read the words without prejudice, however, and "Useless" seems more like an attack on some self-righteous ideologue: "All your stupid ideals/You've got your head in the clouds." Likewise, "Freestate" could be read as an endorsement of chemical abandon ("Let yourself go/Let yourself go" urges the chorus), but makes more sense as a song about emotional release through artistic performance ("Step out of your cage/And onto the stage").

However they're taken, though, the lyrics are only one part of the "Ultra" experience. That they seem to loom so large has less to do with actual content than with the weight Gahan's voice gives them. One of the best things about "The Love Thieves," for instance, isn't its wordplay about love's martyrs, but the way Gahan's tremulous tenor arches up over the thumping darkness of synths and drum machine, conveying a sadness far deeper than anything in the lyrics.

There's a similar dynamic at work in the band's instrumental tracks.

Gore and Andrew Fletcher, the Mode-ys who make the music, may not be as far out front as Gahan, but their personalities come across just as clearly. A good bit of the yearning in "Freestate" comes courtesy of Gore's guitars, particularly the arid whine of his dobro, while most of the kick in "Barrel of a Gun" comes from the convoluted clanking of Fletcher's grittily ingenious rhythm bed.

Perhaps that's why so much of "Ultra" harks back to the band's glory days. "It's No Good" may use better technology than the band had a decade ago, but its mood and melodic energy are very much in the vein of oldies like "Never Let Me Down Again." Not even the rock-oriented instrumentation of "Useless" (which adds live drums and bass guitar to the Mode's usual assortment of synths) does much to alter the band's musical identity.

Talking about the band's sound isn't quite as sexy as sniffing through the lyric sheet for drug gossip, but it does connect more directly to the album's sensibility. Even better -- for both band and fans -- it's closer in spirit to what Depeche Mode is really about.

Now, if they could only figure out how to turn that into an item for "Entertainment Tonight"

In listening mode

To hear excerpts from Depeche Mode's new release, "Ultra," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the code 6158. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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